BBC Legends – Sir John Barbirolli

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Hallé Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli

Beethoven recorded on 1 December 1966 in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; Shostakovich recorded on 22 February 1963 in BBC Studios, Manchester

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: October 2006
BBCL 4193-2
Duration: 76 minutes

Barbirolli’s Beethoven is becoming more common: there are reissues of his Pye recordings, the BBCSO ‘Eroica’, and BBC Legends has released a live Hallé Seventh Symphony.

And, now, the ubiquitous Fifth, which opens with a moderate tempo and trenchant pointing – in the Klemperer mould. There is a sense of quiet power and authority in every bar. In the slow movement the tempo is ideally judged, with some beautifully Italianate woodwind pointing and phrasing. Barbirolli’s approach to the last two movements is didactic; the scherzo is a quick allegro and the lower strings bite, as do the horns, and there is real tension in the transition to the finale, which is slightly faster than the celebrated Carlos Kleiber recording. Regrettably, the exposition repeat is not observed, which robs the listener of one of the most triumphant and ecstatic moments in all music. In compensation there is real attack at every climax, very emphatic; and in the coda the tempo is fast but not hectic and there is a true sense of power and inevitability with biting razor-sharp chords. The sound is not brilliant, with some pitch flutter, congestion and slightly recessed brass.

For many the major point of interest here will be the Shostakovich Fifth, not a composer associated with Barbirolli. After two hearings I can only say that it is a tragedy that this great conductor did not essay more Shostakovich – this is a magnificent performance. From the opening bars every tempo seems natural. Like Mravinsky, Barbirolli uses phrasing and rubato to establish atmosphere and he never resorts to the grandiose and totally inappropriate posturing of Rostropovich.

Thus the first movement is a true Moderato with few tempo changes. The strings combine soaring sweetness of tone with an all-pervasive sense of bleakness, and the up-tempo march which forms the core and climax of the movement is superbly balanced with every instrumental line delineated and moulded; the conductor’s control is absolute.

The Allegretto sounds like a combination of Grieg’s music for “Peer Gynt” and the scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; such is the sense of dance and transparency, with Martin Milner (presumably) offering a spiky, witty and grotesque account of the violin solo. The Largo is glorious – a melancholy songful line is maintained throughout, with no significant tempo changes, and the two climaxes are coruscating in their intensity. Anyone accustomed to overblown and massive accounts of the finale should find Barbirolli revelatory. He is not as quick as André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra (the definitive studio recording of the work), but the tempo is, again, a fast allegro and the central section never descends into a sentimental wallow.

The build-up to the return of the first subject is brisk and totally controlled and when the theme itself arrives there is a rallentando before a slightly slower version of the opening tempo is re-established, which leads to a blistering account of the final bars. There are drawbacks, though. The Hallé is sometimes severely stretched and, particularly in the last movement, there are wrong notes and ensemble lapses, although none are really of any consequence.

The sound, despite Tony Faulkner’s best efforts (with the mono tapes), is dynamically limited and slightly boxy with occasional mild distortion – but the overall and internal balance is better than in the Beethoven. This is a great disc!

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